Golf pins hopes on kids to get out of hole in China
WHEN Zhang Ling-xin finished his studies at the Hunan Golf and Tourism College in Changde, he could have secured a cushy job as a golf caddie to some of the country's richest businessmen.
But the 23-year-old decided to take aim at an unlikely group: junior golfers.
His decision to teach youngsters came on the back of arguably the most dramatic change in China's golf industry in the last three decades.
Since late 2013, golf, along with extravagant wining and dining, has been a major casualty of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign.
China's golf industry experienced an abrupt suspension in 2014, and last year saw a slide for the first time since the 1980s, according to a white paper published in March by the Forward Group, a specialist golf-management company based in Shenzhen.
It estimated that there were about 390,000 "core golfers" - those who play at least eight times every year - in China last year, a drop of almost 5 per cent from 2014.
More than 100 of the country's 600 or so golf courses have closed, and about 50 per cent of those that made the cut are in debt, the paper said.
Despite the bleak outlook, Shanghai native Mi Yao hopes to revive the sport.
"It could be a good opportunity to give golf a facelift. It has been wrongly associated with aristocrats and corruption for too long," said the founder of the Yao Shine Golf School.
Mr Mi is not the first person in China to attempt to make a business out of teaching children golf. But the 36-year-old is the first to partner with public primary schools in the city to make the game accessible, if not free, to children from "non super-rich families".
By last month, Mr Mi had convinced the principals of 11 schools to list the game on their syllabuses as an option for physical-education lessons or after-school exercise.
Zhao Jinghan - vice-principal of Yangpu Primary School, which began listing golf as a free extracurricular activity this semester - said: "The kids are thrilled to try, and parents would be more than ready to pay extra for frequent practice sessions to improve their skills."
She noted that there has been a shift in attitude towards sports among the new generation of parents.
Sports were usually regarded as an outlet for academically poor students, who hope their sporting skills would enable them to earn a living.
Now, with a growing desire among parents to send children to study overseas, sports - especially Western games - are considered a gilding of the lily to make a resume look better.
Xu Ling, whose eight-year-old daughter is learning golf at school and elsewhere, said the ability to play golf is "an additional benefit" when her child applies for prestigious universities abroad.
A report by Dazheng Golf, a golf services and marketing agency, showed that as of the end of last year, there were 3,381 registered junior golfers in China.
The number of junior golfers, especially those under 12, is rising by 30 to 40 every year.
But there is a high dropout rate among children aged 15 to 17, who are unable to combine golf with their increasingly heavy academic workload, say industry insiders.
Golf's "biggest enemy" is the game itself.
"It needs to fight with its old corrupted self to gain a new place in China," said Mr Mi.
CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK